National Security: Let’s Play Our Strengths

At this time of intense partisan divide over the key issues of the day, especially national security, most politically active Americans feel the temptation to join in the fray. Indeed, both parties have shown weakness on the core subject of how to defend the country of late, and as such are vulnerable to criticism.

President Bush’s Iraq operation is clearly faring poorly — largely due to very poor advance planning by his administration for entering into the post-Saddam era.

Democrats do not share the same blame for the Iraq conundrum but generally offer relatively little in the way of alternatives. Part of that is the natural political instinct of an opposition party nearing a midterm election, which both parties’ strategists tend to view primarily as a referendum on the incumbent, and as such is fair game. But the United States faces a sufficiently serious dilemma that it cannot afford much more of this.

Both major American political parties soon will need to offer big ideas to the big foreign policy problems of the day to deal with our many challenges — potential failure in Iraq, trouble in the long-term war on terror, the rise of China, shrinking energy supplies juxtaposed with the way high oil prices fuel both jihadism and global warming, ongoing vulnerabilities to terror attack on the home front.

The good news is that, for all their limitations, both parties have done a great deal right in the modern era to help protect the United States. That suggests a core competence within Democratic as well as Republican circles that can, if properly energized and harnessed, restore a healthy competitive debate on foreign policy — if not this fall, then shortly after.

We do not expect the most extreme partisans on either side of the aisle to quickly acknowledge as much about the other. But for Americans who are tired of our nation’s polarization, and interested more in good ideas for the future than blame about the past, there is plenty of basis to think we are capable of a much more productive national security debate. Consider first a couple things Democrats have done right, then a couple things George Bush has successfully accomplished:

The post-Cold War defense cutbacks (mostly under Bill Clinton) were the most successful postconflict drawdown in U.S. history, as evidenced by the excellent performances of U.S. armed forces in Bosnia starting in 1995, Kosovo starting in 1999 and Afghanistan starting in 2001. By 1996, real defense spending reductions under Mr. Clinton had effectively ended. And when Mr. Clinton left office, spending was back up to about $300 billion — 90 percent of the inflation-adjusted Cold War average.

Together, George H.W. Bush and Mr. Clinton labored to create a Europe “whole and free” through three essential efforts: unification of Germany, enlargement of NATO that knitted the newly free states of Central and Eastern Europe into the security mechanisms of the West, and the belated but ultimately successful efforts to stand up to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Asia, North Korean nuclear efforts were rebuffed and largely stymied, at least for a considerable time, by the Clinton administration. The U.S. deployed aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific to send a clear message of resolve and resolution to Chinese leaders in the midst of their military saber rattling against Taiwan.

The current President Bush has achieved some real successes. In homeland security, he has rightly focused primary attention on preventing attacks through better intelligence and surveillance. The Patriot Act, whatever its problems in insufficiently guaranteeing civil liberties, on balance has been good legislation. Critics of the administration need to acknowledge that updating wiretap authority for the era of the Internet, allowing roving wiretaps not fixed to one phone or location, breaking down barriers between the FBI and CIA, requiring that banks report suspicious money transfers, requiring visa-waiver countries to have biometric indicators on their passports, prohibiting possession of dangerous biological materials in the absence of good research or medicinal reasons, and similar measures, were overdue and prudent.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems likely to go down as a tragic figure, with the Iraq war setting the tone for history’s verdict on his tenure in office. But Mr. Rumsfeld has also done numerous things right, including challenging the military on some outdated war plans (even if he challenged too much and went too far on Iraq), rethinking the country’s global basing posture, and agreeing to an Army plan to build a somewhat lighter force as well as a Navy plan to make its overseas ship deployments more flexible.

As argued in “Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security,” that I co-authored with Kurt M. Campbell, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there is a great deal both sides have done wrong on national defense issues as well. Substantively, both sides have made mistakes; politically, Democrats have been the party that has left itself most open to setbacks by mishandling national security matters electorally.

But at a time when the nation is in crisis, when isolationism may soon sorely tempt many Americans, when nuclear proliferation challenges abound from Korea to Pakistan to Iran, when China’s rise seems likely to reshape international power politics nearly as much as the fall of the Warsaw Pact, Americans will need the very best ideas of both parties to ensure the nation’s peace and prosperity.

Perhaps bare-knuckled brawling is all we can expect for the next month. But after that, it will be time to get serious. Our futures and those of our children depend on it.

See also: Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security